By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
An avid golfer, Richard Crystal was enjoying a day on the course with friends when he realized something wasn’t right. He had a burning sensation in his chest. Then his heart began beating rapidly.
Fortunately, he didn’t delay in seeing his cardiologist. He learned that he needed his aortic valve replaced. He would have to undergo open-heart surgery.
It amazed Crystal how quickly events took place in the days before his operation in February 2009, as he met with doctors and had pre-op procedures. The morning of the surgery, the enormity of what he faced hit him hard.
“Holy cow, this is really happening,” he recalled thinking.
Not only did Crystal endure major surgery, but he dealt with a rush of thoughts and emotions. Encouraged by his wife, Fran, he wrote in a journal along the way. His notes led to more intensive writing during his recovery and, eventually, to his new book, Journey of the Heart.
The memoir details his medical experiences and his close family bonds. It moves back and forth between scenes at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and memories of growing up in New York, falling in love and embarking on a show business career.
His cardiologist, Ilan Kedan, M.D., thought the book could be useful for other heart patients. In fact, a heart transplant recipient received an early copy and thanked Crystal for the comfort it gave her.
“That just thrilled me,” he said. “To know that something I’ve written can help people overcome their fears is incredibly gratifying.”
Writing is a natural for Crystal, a Hollywood producer and writer who in 2013 authored his first novel, A Reign Supreme, published by Open Road Media.
“Richard has always had a pencil and pad at his side,” Fran said. “His office is full of pads that he has accumulated for years, full of memos, plans, story ideas and outlines for TV projects.”
He even took copious notes about Fran’s lengthy labor when their daughter, Jackie, was born.
Known to many by his boyhood nickname, Rip, he grew up in a creative family. His older brother, Joel, had a talent for drawing and became an arts educator. His younger brother is actor and comedian Billy Crystal. Their father, Jack, produced jazz concerts and ran the Commodore Music Shop in Manhattan. Their mother, Helen, encouraged her sons in school plays and sports.
The book includes a forward by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who also has undergone heart surgery. Crystal’s memoir explains his medical experiences in vivid detail so that others can know what to expect.
His scariest time was after surgery one night when his energy level dropped and he worried he might die. A doctor later explained that he had hit a wall, of sorts, that occurs when the body’s surgery-related adrenaline rush subsides.
“When I read it, I’m right back there,” said Crystal, who remained in the hospital five nights after surgery.
He’s glad his doctor had him listen to his heartbeat before and after surgery because those notably different sounds made Crystal realize the importance of having the valve replacement.
Family and friends helped tremendously, he said.
“It’s huge,” he said. “They have your back. It’s so comforting, and it gives you enormous confidence.”
Relatives brought meals to their home for three weeks, Fran said, and friends and family came by to accompany her husband on neighborhood walks.
Crystal, now 71, had the surgery the day before his 63rd birthday. His brother Billy helped by telling him that the operation would be the best present he could ever get.
In addition to the valve replacement, Crystal had a single artery bypass that day. He received post-surgery cardiac rehabilitation, doing monitored aerobic activity.
Today, he visits his cardiologist once a year to monitor his new heart valve. He eats healthy and stays in shape by riding an exercise bike and working with light weights. He also plays golf twice a week and walks the course.
Crystal is also getting involved with the American Heart Association. He participated in a Heart Walk in the Los Angeles area in September and is providing the patient’s perspective at another local event.
When symptoms appear, don’t ignore them, he warns. And, Crystal urges fellow patients to have confidence in their medical team.
“There’s a lot of anxiety, understandably,” he said. “But you just have to have faith and trust in the people helping you, and it is going to be OK.”